Tonight marks the last Sunday Night Baseball game for Boston Red Sox legend David Ortiz. ESPN’s Buster Olney shed light on the face of the franchise.
Yesterday’s interview with one of baseball’s best reporters revealed much, including a time when Olney once cheered for Boston’s historic franchise. Even if it was more about disliking the evil empire in New York than it was about the Red Sox winning.
Robert Stanbury ‘Buster’ Olney III grew up in Randolph Center, Vermont, and started loving the Los Angeles Dodgers when he was eight years old, after reading a book about Sandy Koufax. So, when it looked like the New York Yankees might meet the Dodgers in the 1978 World Series, the second time in as many seasons, Olney said, “I was much more partial to the Red Sox,” when it came to the rivalry. The Yankees had beaten the Dodgers in the World Series the year before, and Olney wanted no part of New York a second time for his beloved team.
The American League East division came down to one game between the Yankees and the Red Sox. With a bit of laughter, Olney admitted, “I actually skipped school to watch that game. After the top of the first inning, I grew up on a dairy farm and our cows got out and I had to go and retrieve the cows. I was just so angry, trying to root for the Red Sox” and not being able to do it because of the escaped animals. The Yankees eventually won that game and went on to defeat the Dodgers again, four games to two.
I asked Mr. Olney about whether that attitude changed since he’s made his home in New York and is now a baseball journalist. Olney replied, “Once I started covering professional baseball in 1989, the Dodgers winning the World Series with [Kirk] Gibson’s home run in ’88, you know, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.” Olney could be impartial about the teams, once that World Series satisfied his childhood fandom: “The next year, I started covering the Triple-A affiliated Nashville Sounds … that was pretty much when it all went away. It went out the window completely.”
“Now, I tell people all the time, I just want something interesting to happen.”
Olney also had an interesting story to tell about his time in New York. “When I was covering the Yankees in ’98, Paul O’Neil looked over at me once and asked, ‘Hey Buster, you root for us, right?’ and I said, ‘Paul, let me tell you something. Right now, there is no doubt that I’m rooting for you guys to win the World Series because you guys have had this amazing regular season, and the most interesting story is to see if you finish it off,'” to validate the work that they put into the year. Then, Olney told O’Neil, “You know what else would be interesting? If next year you lost every single game.”
As we both shared a laugh, Olney added, “I don’t think that he got the journalistic side that you just want something interesting to happen.”
Speaking of interesting events, tonight will be the 60th and final time that Red Sox Nation will see David Ortiz, the face of Boston’s baseball franchise, on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. When I asked Olney about whether fans should be expecting Ortiz to put on a bigger show than what he has already done throughout his retirement season, Olney replied, “First off, he’s definitely a ‘bright lights’ guy. That’s part of the reason why he’s done so well on Sunday Night Baseball.”
Never was a truer word spoken. According to ESPN Front Row, Ortiz is the all-time leader in RBIs (60), second all-time in home runs (21), and third all-time in games played (60). Ironically, on August 18th, 2002, Ortiz played his first SNB game when he played for the Minnesota Twins. The opponents that night: the Boston Red Sox. To name just one other of the many interesting facts that Ortiz has provided on SNB broadcasts, he drove in seven runs, the most in any game of his career, on June 8th, 2014 against the Detroit Tigers.
Not only does Ortiz love the lights, but he loves the ESPN crew as well. “When we show up, he’s like ‘Hey how’s it going?’ He’s so happy.” However, the man “who operates the camera that follows the players when they hit their home runs […] Ortiz has looked at the guy that have done that for him over the years,” ESPN’s Duke Thorne. Ortiz has looked at him as “the greatest good luck charm for him, ever.” Many of the best games that Ortiz has ever played has had Thorne on the camera.
Olney’s good nature came through as he spoke of Thorne, making sure that I had the proper spelling of his name and stressed how important and beloved Thorne is by not only ESPN but the players as well. “So, whenever [Ortiz] sees Duke, he’s like, ‘MY MAN! How’s it goin’?’ and he’ll tell Duke things like, ‘You know, I’ll get it tonight!'” showing how much love Big Papi has for his favorite cameraman.
“But here’s the thing: [Duke] has another assignment,” so he wouldn’t be with the ESPN crew tonight, which seemed to really bum Mr. Olney out. “When David sees him, he gets so fired up.”
In any case, Ortiz’s bat has sure fired up this season, especially with extra base hits. He is one of the team leaders in batting average, he is the leader in RBIs and home runs, but his season total of doubles, not to mention his career doubles, are staggering. He has 47 doubles this year, seven more than Mookie Betts, making him 10th all-time with 631 doubles. That total puts him 12 doubles behind the great Honus Wagner.
When I asked Olney if he felt that playing in Fenway Park for so many years has helped Ortiz with those totals, Olney answered, “Well, I definitely think it’s helped him.”
Olney also added another humorous anecdote: “When I talked to Ortiz about all of his doubles, he always does it with a wince. It’s like, ‘Ohhh man! I can’t believe I keep hitting doubles!’ because then he has to, you know, run […] He told me that his favorite doubles are ground-ruled doubles.”
“The wall for left-handed hitters is doubles paradise,” Olney believes, because “it gives them a visual target.” Olney added that Fenway “really reinforces good habits for left-handed hitters, because they are rewarded for hitting to opposite field, to left-center.” Ortiz has told Olney and many other reporters over the years that “Fenway Park was the perfect place for him.”
We never quite moved away from the Ortiz point, as his influence on the game dictated our conversation, even when discussing the pitching matchup on Sunday night.
When asked about which pitcher, either Yankees starter CC Sabathia or Red Sox starter Drew Pomeranz, would have the most pressure tonight, Olney replied, “In a weird way, I think there’s more pressure on Pomeranz,” because of where the Red Sox stand and “there’s a greater expectation for them, this year.”
Regarding the Yankees, Olney said, “I think this is the first time since 1975 that this team is playing with no pressure.” After trading away many of their high-priced talent at the trade deadline and calling up so many young players to play for them, “they’re just having fun.” If the Yankees were to lose this final game of the series, “it’s not going to be the end of the world, like it would be in Boston.” Olney added, “If the Red Sox would have lost on Thursday and Friday, it would have been a five-alarm emergency.”
After talking to Sabathia, the pitcher told Olney that “he and Ortiz are very friendly. They’ve got a good relationship,” especially after playing against each other for so many years. After Olney asked him about whether there would be a special moment or physical acknowledgement between the two veterans, about how this would be the last time that they face each other under the lights, “CC said that yes there probably would be. Nothing big that many people would notice, but definitely something for people to look for.”
I aked Olney what Red Sox Nation should look for in Pomeranz that they may have overlooked, with the disclosure issues in San Diego with the Padres, Pomeranz’s former team. Between that and the quick hook that he got in his last start against the Baltimore Orioles, the Pomeranz lens seems pretty foggy and distracting. Olney answered that, “after two times through the rotation,” Red Sox manager John Farrell would be “looking for the parachute.”
However, Olney also was quick to provide some supportive information for the young man: “From what I understand, Pomeranz’s elbow feels a lot better than when he was getting the treatment earlier this year, before he was traded.”
All too quickly did the time fly during my interview, as Olney made it feel more like two mates in a pub discussing the inner workings of their favorite pastime. However, before I let him go, I asked Olney about what the Red Sox and their fans should be concerned with down the stretch. Olney responded with “it’s all about the seventh and eighth innings” for Boston. “That’s gotta be the question for the Red Sox going into the postseason. How effective are those guys? Koji [Uehara] looks good coming back. Will it be Robbie Ross or Brad Ziegler?” There are many questions about the bullpen that Boston will need to answer if they are to have any success after the regular season ends.
Olney’s baseball analysis seemed just like his ability to hold an interesting conversation: effortless. Although he puts a ton of time into his research of the game, for which he should be commended, his preparations make the information flow through him so easily for any baseball fan to understand. If you want to hear more about his thoughts on tonight’s game, watch him on the Sunday Night Baseball broadcast tonight.
And, does anyone else want to find out who Duke Thorne is as badly as I do, now? If Big Papi loves him as much as Olney says that he does, Red Sox Nation needs to bow down to the Duke in a gesture of thanks. Apparently, Ortiz couldn’t have done any of it without him.
*** Anyone needing information on how to see Ortiz’s last game on Sunday Night Baseball, please read the following:
|Sun Sep 18||7 p.m.||Baseball Tonight: Sunday Night Countdown presented by Chevrolet|
Karl Ravech, Dallas Braden, Tim KurkjianESPN2 8 p.m.New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox presented by Taco Bell
Dan Shulman, Aaron Boone, Jessica Mendoza, Buster OlneyESPN, ESPN Radio, ESPN Deportes TV, ESPN Deportes Radio